back when chenille was hip

By Art Chantry (

back in my high school days, life was very different than high school today. to begin with, vietnam hung over all of us like a mushroom cloud. we all knew we were going to become cannon fodder when we graduated, so we all gave up and tried to live as much as we could in the time left to us. so, it was really crazy a lot of the time. totally crazy. very very weird times.

AC:over the years i've collected a number of catalogs from 'yearbook' companies as well as chenille patch companies. the yearbook samples are particularly u=interesting. there are clip art sections of generic school mascots and insignia that is sort of a itemizing of every cliche school image in the u.s. there's the usual tigers and indians and mustangs and trojans (all sound like condoms tome). but, there's also interesting post war imagery concerning rockets and the like. one of the most coveted lettermen jackets in washington state is the richland bombers. richland (and it's 'twin city' of hanford) is where the manhattan project derived the first plutonium for the atomic bomb. so, the local high school team became the 'richland bombers (of course.) the best part is their logo and mascot is a mushroom cloud (hovering above a big capital "R"). a friend had one and he was the envy of us all.

one of the light-weight more ‘fun’ sort of activities that happened were gang wars. but, this was tacoma, where there really weren’t ‘ethnic’ gangs. but, there were older longer-standing tradition of gangs in tacoma, to be sure. there are legendary stories about the huge feuds and battles between two gangs known as “the blue barons” and “the lillywhites”. yeah, tacoma gangs had cool names. i remember other names like ‘the darndanelles’. what’s that mean? i dunno. but all these gangs had cool jackets that they wore with chenille patches and insignia, like bikers. only they were letterman jackets. very cool.

but, by the time we rolled around in the late 1960′s. those old gangs were pretty much gone and the new gangs centered around your high school. so, basically, your letterman’s jacket was your gang insignia. you saw another rival school jacket walking down the street, you attacked them and beat them. good clean american fun.

our school (washington high school) was a new school (i was part of the second graduating class) and so, they had to develop a reputation for toughness. we ‘warred’ with two other ‘new schools’ for primacy, rogers and lakes. but, there was also bethel high school (cowpie high. out in the boonies) they were at war with everyone. but, then they were a bunch of farm boys and hicks and the school had just been dis-accredited by the state, so they had to do an extra year of school to graduate. so, as a result, they were a little older, too.. the school was also experiencing a heroin epidemic. real, honest-to-god cowboy junkies driving pickups and looking for blood. some of the violence that happened with that school is sorta hard to believe. so, we gave them a wide berth. they were just too scary.

i was a nerd. i didn’t have a letterman’s jacket to wear. so, me and my nerdy loser non-jock, voc-school pals were outcasts. resultingly, we developed our own clique of nasty minded fools and became quite a force in the region. we had the best parties, with the local madam bringing down the girls after the house closed and members of the bandido motorcycle club would come and drink with us at our party house. good times, good times.

this all brings me around to what our little crowd wore to school. we would wear the letterman’s jacket of RIVAL schools. i wore a lakes high school letterman jacket that i found in a dumpster. i also had a nice collection of letter sweaters and jackets from other schools, too. i wore them all the time just to piss off the other hipsters and the “cool” clique in school (“you can’t wear that! you didn’t EARN IT!”). all my crowd wore them. we wore them to ridicule the class structure. we got beat on a lot, too.

but, this attachment to these jackets (i still have several of them hanging in my closet) leads me into the wonders of school insignia and chenille patches. i had one sweater from toledo high school (in washington state). their team was the toledo “indians.” the back of my sweater had the most magnificent chenille patch (about 14 inches in diameter) of the full head-dressed profile of an american indian. it was a beautiful thing. after i wore out that sweater, i cut the patch off and hung it on my wall. this began an obsession with chenille patches.

at one point i was trying to assemble and entire alphabet of chenille letterforms (high school letters) and create a font. i had some sort of plan of using them in my work as a ready-made alphabet to somehow put in my work as a unique personal signature. this was before computers, so application would have been very difficult and expensive. so, i t

it was more of just an obsession than a practical thing.

i almost had it. but, “J’s” and “Q’s” and “Z’s” were too impossible. (i did find an “X”, though!) i eventually abandoned the project and now all of them are lost. i have n idea where all those patches went. lost in time.

recently a co-worker in my current space (i work above a silkscreen shop that also does lettermen’s jackets) was cleaning out files and getting rid of old crap. she was tossing our stuff that had been accumulating for over 30 years.

as a kindness, she tossed all the chenille patches she found into a big bag and gave them to me. she had no idea about my obsession, but just thought that i’d enjoy them. i did. i REALLY did.

i found this particular patch in the bag. supposedly, it was in the stuff from an older sportswear tshirt shop they acquired a number of years ago. so, they think this one of from at least the early 60′s. who knows? but, it’s pretty darn cool.

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